By / April 17, 2013

What are the health benefits of cycling and walking?

What we all (should) know People riding bicycles make no noise, emit no air pollutants or greenhouse gases, ease traffic…

Fotolia © scusi
Fotolia © scusi
Fotolia © scusi

What we all (should) know

People riding bicycles make no noise, emit no air pollutants or greenhouse gases, ease traffic congestion. Walking and cycling increase fitness. Regular physical exercises provide a sense of wellbeing …Physical activity has many beneficial effects on many aspects of morbidity such as heart disease, diabetes, some types of cancer, and aspects of mental health (including anxiety and depression) and improving functional health in elderly people.


Studies which found that in any given year, regular cyclists (i.e. cycling 3 hours/week, 36 weeks/year, or 108 hours/year) were on average 28% less likely to die than non-cyclists.

It’s easy to do!

The promotion of active transport (cycling and walking) for everyday physical activity is a win-win approach; it not only promotes health but can also lead to positive environmental effects, especially if cycling and walking replace short car trips. Cycling and walking can also be more readily integrated into people’s busy schedules than, for example, leisure-time exercise.

How do you measure the benefits?

There is a lot of jargon in the health sector when it comes to calculating health benefits. The WHO has developed a calculator, called ‘HEAT’ (Health Economic Assessment Tool) for walking and cycling. This tool is designed to help one conduct an economic assessment of the health benefits of walking or cycling by estimating the value of reduced mortality that results from specified amounts of walking or cycling. The tool can be used in a number of different situations, for example: when planning a new piece of cycling or walking infrastructure or in order to value the reduced mortality from past and/or current levels of cycling or walking, such as to a specific workplace, across a city or in a country. Examples of applications are available from several countries.

HEAT gives bicycle advocates answers to the following question: “If X people cycle for Y minutes on most days, what is the economic value of the health benefits that occur as a result of the reduction in mortality due to their physical activity?”

How to use HEAT?

To use the tool, data needs are quite limited: an estimate of how many people are cycling and an estimate of the average time spent cycling.  HEAT can be used to evaluate the reduced mortality from present and future levels of cycling at the national, regional or city level.  It can even be used to evaluate the impact of a new or projected infrastructure.

The tool is available online and is very user-friendly. HEAT’s methodology and user guide gives you all the information you need to better understand the tool: the underlying studies, how the tool actually works, what the assumptions and limitations of the tool are, etc.

So, no more excuses: start right here!

Read more:

The cycling ‘calculator’: valuing the health benefits of cycling / WHO

EP library:

Give all children access to cycling! / Geert Plas

Library thematic dossiers: Cycling as a mode of transportation including cycle tourism and Transport and health issues (internal links)


Thousands of Cycling Studies Available for Download / The German Institute of Urban Affairs (see also their database on literature on cycling.)

European cycle cities profiles

Cavill N et al. Economic analyses of transport infrastructure and policies including health effects related to cycling and walking: a systematic review. Transport Policy, 2008, 15:291–304.

Oja P et al. Health benefits of cycling: a systematic review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 2011, 21:496–509.

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